S1E9: As I’ve watched Season 3 of Modern Family, I’ve found that some of the magic seems to be slipping from the show’s grasp. Week after week this year, we find thinner family moments, fewer laughs, and a tiresome exploitation of the characters’ formerly human, now increasingly outlandish eccentricities. Few episodes in Season 3 have resembled the genuine, life-affirming charm that the glory days of Modern Family celebrated.
But I say “few,” because as of this week, it is most certainly not “none.” Modern Family’s Season 3 Thanksgiving episode, “Punkin Chunkin,” is something of a phenomenon. It seems to disregard all of the tawdry humor and phoned-in sentiment that episodes these past weeks have advertised. As a matter of fact, in both laughter and emotional authenticity, “Punkin Chunkin” might well be one of my favorite Modern Family episodes ever.
What really works for the series is when a universal theme joins the three households—both spiritually, and (in the climax) physically. What we deal with this week is, despite the simplicity of its description, a true testament to the depth of these characters: Dreamers vs. Pritchetts. The three sighing Pritchett adults, dedicated to sense, tough-love and grounded living, find themselves at odds with their more flighty, imaginative and emotional romantic partners:
“Claire, you always do this! You squelch me! You squelch me right when I’m about to soar!” – Phil
“Honey, you’re folding napkins.” – Claire
“You’re folding my dreams!” – Phil
The grandest of the three stories ensnares Claire and Phil. When an old neighbor boy (Josh Gad in a riotous performance) who had a close connection with Phil comes back to town after becoming a wealthy entrepreneur thanks to his life maxim (“What would Phil Dunphy do?”), Phil begins to blame Claire for always shooting his ideas, and general thirst for life, down. Such dreams of Phil’s that Claire is accused of destroying: the rice pudding franchise, the adult tricycle, the Aspirin gun, and the Real Headscratcher…TM. By the way, there’s another Phil/Luke homemade commercial: best thing ever made by a human.
“My mother used to criticize everything that I did. And look at me now—I’m a jumble of insecurities.” – Gloria
“…I’m not getting that.” – Jay
Jay and Gloria are next—arguing, naturally, over their disparate views on parenting. When Manny presents a subpar centerpiece that he created for the Thanksgiving dinner, Gloria praises it relentlessly, hoping to bolster his self-esteem. Jay argues that Manny would be better suited hearing the truth: there are some things he’s just not good at. But Gloria resists this philosophy, continuing to shower her son with compliments about everything imaginable.
“There’s no such thing as a supportive ‘wa-wa!’ A ‘wa-wa’ by its very nature is vicious and undercutting!” – Cam
Finally, the storyline to which the episode owes its title: Mitchell takes issue with Cam’s insistence to tell a farfetched childhood story about catapulting a pumpkin across the length of a football field and into a neighborhood preacher’s car. Mitchell’s complaints, initially apparently just about Cam’s repetition of the story, are eventually revealed to be rooted in the fact that he doesn’t believe that the story could possibly be true.
—I’d like to take a quick side-note to express how grateful I am for this storyline in particular: this is the Cam we know, and the Cam who Cam deserves to be. He’s sensitive, but incredibly confident. He’s a showman, a bit dramatic, and “impish,” but not the childish and immature character we’ve seen lately. Plus, I appreciate it when the show explores Mitchell and Cam’s relationship without feeling the need to pepper it with jokes about/at the expense of their homosexuality.
“It’s like a thousand tiny angels are line-dancing on my scalp—oh, looks like we’ve got a slight malfunction in the rear-nogginizer.” – Phil
So there it is—three ostensibly unrelated storylines that, when linked spiritually by intermittent talking heads of Claire, Jay and Mitchell sighing exasperatedly, reveal to be, more than any other recent plotline, a great indicator of everything this show has to say:
1. people are different,
2. two different people can very well belong together, and
3. a whole bunch of different people can form one hell of a family.
This last idea comes into play when the households merge at the Dunphy home for the Thanksgiving feast. Of course, all parties are in a huff over their individual spats, and nothing stays beneath the surface for long. When the mutual resentment of the realist Pritchetts becomes vocalized by the dreamers that are Phil, Gloria and Cam, the family’s mentalities divide them, and they decide to settle the bet over which ideology is the superior by testing out the veracity in Cam’s alleged “Punkin Chunkin” once and for all (as they’ve all heard the story many times before).
The realists (Claire, Jay, Mitchell and Alex*) scoff as the dreamers (Phil, Gloria, Cam, Haley* Luke, and Manny) enthusiastically boast about their idealism and set up a catapult on the local high school’s football field. After a ferocious setup, the latter team launches a pumpkin no more than a few yards, sulking at their defeat and expecting a heavy gloating from their oppositionary loved ones. However, all three Pritchetts agree that, unexpectedly, they sort of wanted the dreamers to be right.
(* “This is not the time for moral equivocation.” – Alex
“Okay…I don’t know what that means. And also, don’t tell me.” – Haley
There’s also a storyline wherein Haley and Alex dent Claire’s car and try exhaustively to keep this a secret. It’s not entirely connected to the universal realists/dreamers theme, more so just filler. Fun filler, though. They make a terrific team/rivalry. )
So here’s where the magic comes in: using a bit of the Pritchetts’ logic—such as an understanding of angles and physics or whatever you might need to know to chunk a punkin properly—and more of the dreamers’ spirit, a second launch is ventured, and the pumpkin soars magnificently beyond the length of the field.
“The dreamers need the realists to keep from soaring too close to the sun. And the realists? Well, without the dreamers, they might not ever get off the ground.” – Cam
This conclusive scene hammers in the fact that this is such a beautiful episode of television. Up until this point, it is simply a hilarious, well-crafted piece of human comedy. But when the “two sides” of the family join, each with its specific, terrific value, to accomplish a task that is at once intrinsically worthless but spiritually insuperable to this family, it is a majesty of warmth and inspiration. Dreamers needs realists, and realists need dreamers. But what’s more important than that, as the show proves, is that people need the people who love them—no matter how different they may be.